The year 1531 was part of a period of big changes in central Mexico after the arrival of the Spaniard Hernan Cortes in 1519 and the decline of the Aztec civilization that ruled central Mexico from about 1345 to 1521. Elaborate Aztec cities and magnificent temples were razed by Cortes and his armies. Plague and smallpox wreaked havoc on the indigenous population. Christianity came along with the Spanish, but had not taken full root; and then came the appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a humble local man Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on Tepeyac Hill, northwest of the modern-day Mexico City.
Our Lady’s Appearances on Tepeyac Hill
The story goes that Juan Diego was walking near Tepeyac Hill when he heard beautiful singing birds and a sweet voice saying, “Juan Diego, Juan Diego. I am the ever-perfect Virgin Mary, who has the honor of being the Mother of the true God.” She asked Juan Diego to go to Bishop Juan de Zumarraga and ask him to build a church on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego asked the Bishop, but he dismissed him, asking for a sign that this request was indeed from the Virgin Mary. A few days later on December 12, 1531, Juan Diego returned to Tepeyac Hill where Our Lady greeted him and reassured him that his sick uncle would be healed. She told Juan Diego to pick the Castilian roses which had appeared miraculously on Tepeyac Hill and take them to the Bishop as “proof” – Juan Diego did as asked, wrapping the roses in his tilma (mantle/cloak). When he arrived at the Bishop’s, he unfolded his tilma to present the roses, and the most beautiful image of the Blessed Virgin was imprinted on his tilma. The Bishop and all those present fell to their knees in awe of the loveliness of the image of Our Lady on the tilma – a beautiful brown-skinned lady standing atop a crescent moon with the rays of the sun shining from behind – a likeness of the Blessed Virgin that Juan Diego had seen on Tepeyac Hill. The fabulous, miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is now enshrined in the Basilica Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The Basilica is the outgrowth of the original church built on Tepeyac Hill by the Bishop, that has been gradually enlarged over the years as many people came to venerate Our Lady under this important title in Mexico and throughout the world. The current New Basilica was completed in 1976 and attracts 18 to 20 million visitors and pilgrims each year.
St. Juan Diego’s Historical Achievements
Juan Diego was a humble servant to whom Our Lady appeared. Although, he felt himself unworthy of the task of carrying Our Lady’s requests to the Bishop, she reassured him. His place in history was cemented when the Bishop acknowledged the appearances of Our Lady to Juan Diego and had a church erected there as She had requested. Juan Diego become a permanent resident of Tepeyac Hill near the church – greeting visitors and retelling the story of Her appearances. The appearances to Juan Diego are thought to be a turning point in the evangelization of the indigenous people of Mexico as many people came to venerate the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tilma. The tilma was originally placed in the chapel of the Bishop, but he had it moved to the main church to allow access to the many people wanting to see it. Today, 80% of Mexico is Catholic with over 100 million faithful. Juan Diego was canonized by St. Pope John Paul II on July 31, 2002 and his feast day is on December 9.
Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Words of Instruction and Encouragement
Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego during the four apparitions which he experienced. Some of the communications from Our Lady were instructional, and others were messages of encouragement to Juan Diego.
The instructional messages including asking Juan Diego to approach the Bishop to request the building of a church on Tepeyac Hill. Other communications were instructions for Juan Diego to pick the Castilian roses and present them to the Bishop.
Our Lady encouraged Juan Diego after his first meeting with the Bishop where the Bishop did not agree to build the church. Juan Diego was discouraged and felt that the Bishop denied the request because Juan Diego was not a worthy messenger because of his poor and lowly status. Juan Diego said to Our Lady, “I exceedingly beg, Lady and my Child, that you entrust the delivery of your message to someone of importance, well known, respected, and esteemed, so that they may believe in him; because I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf, and you, my Lady, you send me to a place where I never visit nor repose.” Our Lady firmly responded to Juan Diego “Hark, my son the least, you must understand that I have many servants and messengers, to whom I must entrust the delivery of my message, and carry my wish, but it is of precise detail that you yourself solicit and assist and that through your mediation my wish be complied. I earnestly implore, my son the least, and with sternness I command that you again go tomorrow and see the bishop. You go in my name, and make known my wish in its entirety that he has to start the erection of a temple which I ask of him. And again, tell him that I, in person, the ever-virgin Holy Mary, Mother of God, sent you.”
When Juan Diego saw the Blessed Virgin for the fourth time on December 12, 1531, he explained to the Virgin that he was unable to see her the previous day as agreed, since was attending to his uncle who was gravely ill and near death. After hearing Juan Diego’s explanation, she uttered these now familiar words of encouragement, “Hear me and understand well, my son the least, that nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear that sickness, nor any other sickness or anguish. Am I not here, who is your Mother? Are you not under my protection? Am I not your health? Are you not happily within my fold? What else do you wish? Do not grieve nor be disturbed by anything. Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now of it – be assured that he is now cured.” (The uncle was cured at that very moment, and also saw the same vision of Our Lady as Juan Diego had seen.)
Symbolism of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe
The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe includes much symbolism. Shown below are some of the symbolic items which are present in the image of Our Lady imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma:
Tilted Head and Lowered Eyes – the Blessed Virgin’s posture is one of humility illustrating her commitment of “yes” to be the bearer and Mother of Jesus.
Brown-skin – the fair face of the Blessed Virgin was the color of the indigenous people like Juan Diego.
Sun – Behind the Lady are the rays of the sun. The sun played a key role in the Aztec civilization that was still in place in the early 16th century; and the Blessed Lady appearing in front of the sun, implied that she was greater than the Aztec sun god. She hides the sun, but its rays shine forth.
Moon – Similarly, she stands upon the moon, showing her superiority to the Aztec moon god and that she is greater than the night.
Stars – The stars on the mantle are a sign of Our Lady’s heavenly nature. It is said that the arrangement of the stars is consistent with the constellations seen in the sky of Mexico at dawn of December 12, 1531 (one of the dates of Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego).
Sun, Moon and Stars, with the pregnant Mother – taken together these symbols clearly harken to the passage from the Book of Revelation which reads, “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.” (Rev 12:1-2).
Maternity Band – The black band around the Lady’s waist was the sign of a pregnant woman, a mother who is about to give birth.
Angel – A cherub with eagle’s wings carries the Lady. Cherubs in the Old Testament represented thrones of God, i.e. carriers of royalty. The four colors of the wings are thought to represent the four cardinal points indicating that the message that the Virgin brings is for everyone throughout the world.
Prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe
Dear mother, we love you. We thank you for your promise to help us in our need. We trust in your love that dries our tears and comforts us. Teach us to find our peace in your son, Jesus, and bless us every day of our lives.
Help us to build a shrine in our hearts. Make it as beautiful as the one built for you on the mount of Tepeyac. A shrine full of trust, hope, and love of Jesus growing stronger each day.
Mary, you have chosen to remain with us by giving us your most wonderful and holy self-image on Juan Diego’s cloak. May we feel your loving presence as we look upon your face. Like Juan, give us the courage to bring your message of hope to everyone.
You are our mother and our inspiration. Hear our prayers and answer us.
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Aleteia – https://aleteia.org/2017/12/12/the-hidden-symbolism-of-our-lady-of-guadalupes-image/ – The hidden symbolism of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image
Dan Lynch Apostolates – https://www.jkmi.com/what-s-so-special-about-the-missionary-image
International Marian Research Institute – https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/t/twelve-stars-in-revelation-meaning.php
National Shrine and Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe – https://virgendeguadalupe.org.mx/en/
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – https://bible.usccb.org/bible/revelation/12 – Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
World Population Review – https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/highest-catholic-population